San Diego is known as “America’s finest city” and it holds that title for many reasons. Within a two-hour drive of Los Angeles and a thirty-minute drive from the Mexican border, San Diego offers up the classic California experience of beaches and outdoor havens with a multicultural twist and (in my opinion) a friendlier crowd.
While a quick Google search for “things to do in Los Angeles” pulls up 20 pages of results, knowing what to do in San Diego isn’t quite as easy. I’m here to give you insight into the 10 best things to do in and around San Diego.
1. San Diego Zoo & Balboa Park
Showcasing nearly 800 species, including pandas, San Diego Zoo is known as one of the finest zoos in the world. Spending less than half of the day here would be hard for someone of any age. The second half of the day could be spent just in adjacent Balboa Park, home to more than 16 museums, a botanical garden, golf courses, art venues, an artist village and a multicultural center. Balboa Park is quintessentially San Diego and a must-visit while in the city.
2. Torrey Pines State Reserve
Get into the southern California outdoor lifestyle by tackling some of Torrey Pines’ incredible hikes. The views are stunning and the experience refreshing and unique.
3. Coronado Island
Coronado Island, accessible only by bridge or ferry (or swimming), is home to the best view of the San Diego skyline. Half of the island is a naval base and the other half is home to the Hotel Del Coronado, one of the country’s oldest buildings to be fully fitted with electrical lights. If you come in the winter you’ll be afforded the rare treat of ice skating within meters of the Pacific Ocean, shaded by tall palm trees.
4. Cabrillo Monument & Sunset Cliffs
The Cabrillo National monument marks the first landing point of Juan Cabrillo, the first European considered to have stepped foot on what is now California. The spot provides views of Coronado Island, San Diego and even parts of Mexico. On the northern side of the peninsula, you’ll find Sunset Cliffs, exposed rock faces that glow as the sun sets. Bring a picnic here and watch the surfers bring in the day’s last sets (waves).
5. La Jolla Cove & Scripps Aquarium
La Jolla (“the jewel” in Spanish) is home to one of California’s largest marine reserves. You can take selfies with sea lions (remember to be respectful and careful), kayak over kelp forests (a type of large seaweed) and snorkel with the garibaldi (the California state fish). Water a little too cold? Visit the Scripps Aquarium just north of the Cove to get up close and personal with some of these marine species in a drier and more comfortable setting.
6. North County Brewery Tours
San Diego has the highest number of licensed craft breweries in the US, including Ballast Point, Stone Brewing, Karl Strauss, Green Flash and Pizza Port… to name a few. While most of these brewing companies have small brewing sites and tasting rooms scattered across the city, it’s a unique experience to visit their original sites. If you’re over 21, you can visit them for the freshest pints and fun brewery tours. Make sure to eat at their on-site restaurants as well; in San Diego good beer is always enjoyed with great food.
7. Neighborhood Hop: Little Italy, Gas Lamp Quarter, Hillcrest & North Park
One of the best things about San Diego is that it’s made up of lots of unique neighborhoods. Little Italy is home to some of the city’s finest restaurants – not limited to Italian food. Start your evening there before heading to the Gas Lamp Quarter for evening drinks. Alternatively, Hillcrest is home to more unique cuisines, without the bustle of downtown life. Follow University Avenue through Hillcrest and you’ll find yourself in North Park, a great place for some of San Diego’s local craft beer and a great live music scene.
8. Whale watching & Mission Beach
December through late April is the peak of blue and grey whale migration from the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean to Baja California, where these whales give birth. Whale watching tours leave from multiple places in San Diego, Mission Bay being the best of the bunch. It’s also the perfect place for water sports, such as kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding or jet skiing. Mission Beach, to the west of the bay, offers an endless sandy boardwalk to enjoy if you’re looking for a spot of relaxation instead.
Just across the border in Mexico is Tijuana. Cross the border to practice your Spanish and try some authentic Mexican cuisine. There are also many opportunities for purchasing cool local crafts. If you plan to visit, make sure to bring your passport and/or student visa. Visiting Tijuana is a lot fun, but returning to San Diego can take up to a few hours, so plan accordingly.
Within one hour of San Diego are some of California’s finest wineries. Temecula is a fantastic place to visit either for the day or for a full weekend. Thirty-five wineries grant you the opportunity to take your taste buds on a wild ride. If you want to make the experience even more special, reserve a sunrise hot air balloon ride before heading back to San Diego.